The time before the next school year starts is a great time to reflect on the struggles of belonging, many of our students face with the transition from one grade to another. Students are most vulnerable for dropping out of school during and immediately following their first year of high school (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009). The transition from middle to high school often marks the beginning of many problem behaviors (Graber & Brooks- Gunn, 1996), including substance use, aggressive and violent behavior, and high-risk sexual behavior. For many, the transition proves too difficult, and they leave school altogether.
When students make transitions—such as from middle school to high school—new relationships must be formed, old relationships may fade away, and it’s typical to ask, “Do I fit in here?” In instances that can trigger doubts about belonging, it’s essential for students to know they aren’t alone in their feelings, especially during adolescence. It’s also vital for them to know that concerns about belonging will fade with time. In other words, we need to find ways to communicate to our students the message that “you’re not alone in feeling this way” and “it gets better.
Belonging is a fundamental human need; whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always monitoring how well we feel and how we fit in during our social interactions. When we don’t feel like we belong—when we feel excluded, rejected, or like an outsider—it saps our precious mental resources and energy, distracts us, and keeps us from being fully present in the moment; it drastically alters our mental well-being. Belonging acts as a precursor to other aspects of positive aspects in the classroom. For instance, when students feel like they belong, they show more motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy. A positive self-efficacy has been identified as a way to help young people overcome stressful situations; thus, social belonging is one of the primary indicators educators should attend to because if it’s lacking, students find it difficult to succeed academically and socially.
For someone with doubts about belonging, social cues are more salient and can be more impactful. When people doubt that they belong, it can trigger a series of cascading events where they interpret typical social situations in a harsh light. For a student who has a strong sense of belonging at school, a canceled interaction with a teacher holds no special meaning, but a student who doubts his or her belonging may interpret this same innocuous event to mean he or she is not liked by the teacher. A student who questions whether she belongs might take it personally if a friend doesn’t eat lunch with her, while a more secure student will be able to brush it off. A student who is insecure in his sense of belonging might see a lousy grade as proof that “people like me can’t do this,” while a student with a higher sense of belonging might think he needs to study more next time. The teacher has enormous power to create either a growth or fixed mindset that ultimately impacts the child throughout their academic career.
Since the transition from middle to high school is not a one-time event, but rather a process that takes place over an extended period (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999), it is essential that students receive support and guidance throughout the transition. Students who are enrolled in the most extensive and comprehensive transition programs can maintain their grade-level placement in high school and have the lowest dropout rates (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999). Research also indicates that students who participate in transition programs that actively involve students, parents, and staff members are less likely to drop out of high school (Smith 1997; Hertzog & Morgan, 1999).
Successful transition programs are multi-faceted. They facilitate caring relationships, create a culture of support and sense of community, provide students with cognitive challenges, and make the connection between what students are learning in school to life after graduation (Feller, 2003). Effective programs offer opportunities to get to know and develop positive relationships with older students and other incoming students (Holland & Mazzoli, 2001; Mizelle & Irvin, 2000; Smith, 2006). The experienced staff at iinii use a revolutionary design thinking approach to design and implement impactful transition programs guaranteed to increase school connectedness and improve graduation rates. To learn how you can create a dynamic transition program, visit our website at www.iinii.org, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1800-507-2502.